This story is an excerpt from the American Institute of Physics’ magazine Physics Today. Read the whole article here. The Accelerator is offering it to provide insight into the teaching and learning strategies used by students and teachers at a small engineering college.
By Rebecca Schutzengel
I first heard about Olin College of Engineering when I read the 2007 New York Times article “Re-engineering Engineering.” At the time, I was a junior in high school and just beginning to think about where I wanted to go to college and what I wanted to study. I didn’t really know what engineering was, but I loved physics, so it seemed like a reasonable choice.
The New York Times article instantly piqued my interest and put Olin at the top of my list of desirable schools. Although I wasn’t sure I wanted to be an engineer, and Olin only offers engineering degrees, I was drawn to Olin’s mission and school culture and, after more research and exploration, I knew it was the place I wanted to be.
Olin is a small undergraduate engineering school located in Needham, Massachusetts (about 15 miles outside of Boston). The school enrolls only about 350 students, and it graduated its first class in 2006. Olin is dedicated to reinventing engineering education—that is, to training more well-rounded engineers and directly addressing the problems of high dropout rates and a lack of diversity in the engineering workforce. Olin aims to graduate engineers who are innovative and entrepreneurial, while also provoking and supporting other engineering schools to make changes towards the same goals.
As a student at Olin, I was constantly engaged in open-ended projects through which I learned concepts, practices, and mindsets central to being an engineer. I did not have to wait through years of math and science courses before being allowed to tackle actual engineering problems. All students at Olin begin engineering projects on our first day of classes.
We learn engineering by doing it: by trying something, often failing, reflecting on what we did, learning to ask for help when we need it and reiterating until we’re successful. The process is messy, but the end result is learning that is far more powerful and long-lasting than anything we could have gotten from sitting in a lecture hall.
In addition to assigning projects, Olin’s curriculum focuses on design-based learning and interdisciplinary work. Through design-based learning students do not solve pre-defined problems, but instead we find and define for ourselves what problems are worth solving. In user-oriented design courses at Olin, we study the people who will ultimately be using our products. We get to know their needs and values and we find ways to engineer things that will improve their lives.
For example, in one class project, my team studied people who work with blind children. By the end of the project, we had designed a tool to help public school teachers who have blind children in their classes. Olin’s focus on user-centered design means that as students, we get to tackle problems that are meaningful to us and will make a difference in the world. When I decided to go to Olin I didn’t know that engineering could focus on helping people, but that turned out to be my favorite thing about it.
In high school I had always loved physics, and that love continued at Olin. When I look at everyday phenomena, I think about the physics that underlies what I see happening and I enjoy figuring out how things work just for the sake of knowing. At Olin I discovered that I love both physics and engineering, so I decided to design my own major: engineering with a concentration in physics. For me, this meant fulfilling Olin’s general engineering requirements and also taking most of the physics classes for a typical physics major.
Many students at Olin design their own majors, and like others, I made it work through a combination of Olin classes, independent studies, and cross-registering at Olin’s reciprocal schools: Wellesley College, Brandeis University, and Babson College. Designing my own major required me to delineate exactly what I wanted to get out of my college education, and it taught me to take initiative in order to reach those goals.